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Our Lady of the Forest    by David Guterson Amazon.com order for
Our Lady of the Forest
by David Guterson
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Knopf, 2003 (2003)
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* * *   Reviewed by Mary Ann Smyth

David Guterson, author of Snow Falling on Cedars, presents Our Lady of the Forest. In my mind, it's another work of art, and a complete diversion from his previous novel. Ann Holmes is a homeless teenager who supports herself by foraging in a forest in Washington State for mushrooms chanterelles to provide for her scant needs. Medicines for her asthma and allergies take most of her earnings.

While hunting chanterelles one day, Ann has a vision of Mary, Mother of God, who tells her what she must do to bring peace to the world and end greed and envy. Needless to say, she acquires a coterie who blindly follow her into the forest and appeal to her for intercession on their behalf with Mother Mary. A strange choice for such a vision, Ann has been using magic mushrooms since she was in sixth grade and marijuana soon after that. She was a petty thief and a liar and anything else she needed to be to survive.

Ann approaches the parish priest for help to build a church for the Lady. The priest is in a moment of crisis of faith himself and needs help of his own. The Bishop sends an older jaded priest to look into this occurrence. Ann's friend Carolyn decides to capitalize on the publicity. Ex-logger Tom Cross has issues of his own, that he wants Ann to help with. Of course, the Catholic Church figures heavily in the story. Mostly we learn of the history of the church and the process of appointing saints.

A continuing thread in Our Lady of the Forest is the question of Ann's veracity. Did she really see a vision? Or is she having flashbacks from taking drugs? I wanted to believe Ann. But I am also at times a cynic and so found it hard to credit. Readers will make up their own minds as the story unfolds; I imagine that a lot of heated discussion could arise from this novel.

The book is written without quotation marks, which gave me fits at the beginning, but soon became commonplace. Occasionally, periods and capital letters are missing, which adds to its uniqueness. The climax is unexpected. The anti-climax will blow you away. (Don't I repeat DON'T read the last pages first, as I know some people are prone to do. It would diminish a fine ending and disappoint.)

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